In the midst of an economic downturn that has taken the country by storm, it seems as if the nation’s best sports league is grappling with its own drought: a lack of transcendent young talent at key positions.
Now there is no denying that the NFL is talented. But it’s hard to overlook the fact that many of the league’s top performers are of an older breed.
Think about it. Last year's Super Bowl featured a 37 year-old quarterback, who also in fact happened to be the best quarterback in this year’s free-agent pool.
Kerry Collins led the Titans to the best record in the AFC last year, and reestablished himself as a Pro-Bowl caliber player at 36! Even Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, possibly the best signal-callers of our generation are both over the 30-year mark.
Wide receiver is another position. If you ignore the meteoric explosion of Larry Fitzgerald in the playoffs, it’s pretty safe to say that the old dogs are still running their same tricks.
Further down the list, veteran receivers like T.J. Houshmandzadeh (31-years-old) and Steve Smith (29-years-old) continue to give defenses headaches despite their climb up the ladder of age.
This trend is not as much the case with running backs, mostly because of the physical demands of the position, but across other positions as well such as linebacker and safety, we see big names and old ages.
For example, Ray Lewis, one of the hottest free-agent targets this off-season is 33, and Brian Dawkins still blows people up at the safety position at 35.
So why is this the case? Are these veteran players simply that good?
The answer appears to be because not enough young players have made the proverbial jump to usurp the throne of their predecessors.
Veterans are still getting by with their cagey-play, and not many young players seem able to take advantage of their opportunity and step up to the plate as numerous illustrious careers are winding down.
Now of course this isn’t the case for everybody. There are some emerging talents that are taking a meteoric rise to super-stardom such as Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Adrian Peterson, and Matt Ryan. But the more you think about it, the shorter the list gets for potential hall-of-fame players.
Just look at the group of top picks over the last three or four years that were supposed to carry the torch, but have instead turned into disappointments or flops.
Alex Smith can barely hold a roster spot in San Fran, Cadillac Williams has hit the repair shop way too many times in his short career. Reggie Bush, the supposed “can’t miss prospect,” might not even be a starter in this league.
Vince Young can’t keep his confidence up, let alone his play, and JaMarcus Russell is floundering in the dark hole of Oakland.
And don’t tell me this year is any better. There is almost no one who inspires absolute confidence out of this year’s big names. Stafford is inconsistent, Sanchez is unproven, Crabtree has speed issues (and maybe injury problems too,) and Curry has only risen into the top-five because of his stellar combine workout.
Think about how much was invested, or will be invested, in a lot of these highly touted players, and what their performance level has been so far. Many have set their franchises back by a significant margin, and we may be feeling the repercussions now.
Compare the NFL to a league like the NBA. How many bona-fide superstars over thirty are still dominating the NBA?
You could say Kobe and KG, but the faces of the NBA today are the Lebron Jameses, the Dwayne Wades, the Carmelo Anthonys, and the Kevin Durants. And the ironic part about it is the NFL is clearly the more punishing, brutal, and physical league.
Now I’m not trying to knock the young players of the NFL, because it is still certainly an exciting league with plenty of parity and successful players in their early to mid-twenties.
But I just don’t see many young Peyton Manning’s and LaDainian Tomlinson’s waiting in the wings. Maybe we were spoiled by the inordinate number of hall-of-fame careers that have held it down in the league for the last decade or so.
Or maybe these young players still haven’t shown their full potential. But unless some sort of stimulus package kicks in, we may be seeing the emergence of a veteran’s league.